The other night, as I lounged on a couch more posh than comfortable, imbibing a flight of Syrah at the local wine bar, a friend — everyone is a friend in this town — leaned across the very large coffee table and told me she was homeschooling her kids. “You were homeschooled, right?” She asked “What did you think of it?”
That is a question I have contemplated frequently over the last 20 years or so. By and large, I think it just depends. It depends on the kid, and it depends on the parents. Mostly the parents. I had great parents for the job; a visual artist and a botanist-biologist-turned-medical-doctor who was willing to work part-time so he could participate in our education. But even still, it wasn’t perfect. Our greatest boon was that it saved us from boredom and potential bullying, and that it gave us an enormous amount of freedom to develop our own particular skills. If my little brother Daniel sang at all hours of the day, nobody gave him a pill and told him to shut up. If Samuel wanted to spend the afternoon running around the yard tackling invisible people and doing flips, he could do that. And if I wanted to read until my head ached, I could do that, too.
My first official English lesson was in college. Until that point, I had never formally studied rhetoric, English grammar, composition, MLA style, or anything else relating to how to write. Yet I had been writing since I was six years old, and by the time I left for college, had already written two (not exceptionally good) novels. I had spent at least 8,000 hours of my life reading everything from Beverly Cleary to Shakespeare to the Encyclopaedia Britannica — figuring 3 hours a day, 300 days a year, on average, from ages 9-18, which is actually a pretty conservative estimate.
In mimicry of all I read, I wrote plays, I created satirical advertisements, I published handwritten family newspapers, and I kept journals. I constructed argumentative letters, bolstered with historical research and social commentary, if my parents forbade me to do something that I considered particularly innocuous. Occasionally I even had to produce a report on something. Like photons. Or the changing chromosomal structure of wheat over time. Which reminds me. We had no formal science curriculum either. We had science journals. We had our gardens, supplemented by my father’s drawings of photosynthesis. We made diagrams of how much our corn plants grew every week. We did simple experiments as young children, and read more as older children. We took vacation only on holidays, weekends, and family trips. We did math every day (Saxon math, which included a smattering of chemistry as we advanced). Spelling every day. Latin every day — I learned the names for things in English grammar when we studied Latin. I learned about transitive versus intransitive verbs, nominative versus accusative case, and how languages can differ from one another. We were not required to do art, but we had ample material, and drawing was one of our favorite pastimes. Sometimes, we had life drawing class. We observed, as our mother pointed out, how the head is shaped like an egg, with the eyes lined up in the approximate middle of the face. From outside sources, I took violin for awhile. Choir for awhile. Sign language, quilting, softball, ballet, gymnastics, swimming and skiing for awhile. Sometimes, individually, we went in with my father to his clinic and did our schoolwork in his office. If we got bored, we helped the front desk file charts, or, with a patient’s permission, sat in on a consult or a minor surgery. Or we would pull my father’s medical books off the shelf and read those. There was a really interesting one on reproduction and gestation, with super-glossy pictures.
It was not exactly an orthodox education, and I have sometimes wondered if, given the opportunity of the right public or private high school, I might not have gotten into a more prestigious university. I also wonder if my drive to read and write so much would have survived in an environment where I sat behind a desk for 8 hours a day listening to someone drone on about whatever the subject was. Curious, in eighth or ninth grade, I visited a private school with some of my friends, and I was horrified at how much time they spent being counterproductive. In math, the teacher went over how to find the circumference of a circle, and even though I already knew how to do that, the way he was teaching it confused me. In Spanish, we repeated nouns in unison with atrocious pronunciation. Thereafter, I did not set foot inside a lecture hall until college.
My first semester at college, I enrolled in a journalism lab, Biology 101 and various other 101-level classes. I neglected to actually enroll in the journalism lab’s accompanying class, and turned in my first story for the school paper still without ever having been to a formal writing lesson. One of the other students in my lab recognized my name when I introduced myself, and said that my first lead had been read aloud to her class as an example of fine student journalism. At this point, I had no idea what a lead even was. I had just written what seemed interesting in the first paragraph to get people to pay attention to what otherwise was not a very interesting story.
The first day of Biology, our teacher told the full class of us that he was going to be rigorous, and proved it by jumping straight in. We could work with lab partners on a quiz we were given, and that first time, I made the mistake of assuming that the other kids would know more than me because they’d had High School biology. But they didn’t; we got only 3 out of 5 questions right. After that, I took what they said with a grain of salt. As the semester wore on, more and more of the class dropped out, until there were only a handful of us. Not all of them were passing, either. I didn’t quite understand this, since they seemed to be studying and coming to class faithfully, which was all I needed to do to ace the tests. I did spend a lot of time with my nose buried in my Biology textbook that semester, trying to understand the concepts enough to reformulate them to myself. As far as I know, I was the only person in class that semester to get an A. My teacher told me I should go into Biology. I ignored him, because I liked writing better.
I was also taking a freshman-level English composition class. As directed study. Which meant that I had a textbook to read, several papers to write, and that I met with my professor for ten minutes every week, one-on-one. Those ten minutes were intense, but decided I liked this, since it meant that, once again, I did not have to sit in on boring lectures, which saved me about three hours every week. That Biology class was taking up quite a bit of my time.
Years later, after two semesters of teaching three to six classes per week, with limited student retention of the lecture material, I decided to scuttle Friday class periods in favor of each student coming in to meet with me for ten minutes to discuss their papers in person, in remembrance of those meetings with my English professor. Those ten minutes counted heavily towards their participation and attendance grades. They liked it. I liked it, mostly because it gave me face time with students who never would have otherwise ventured into my office.
So over the sound of acoustic guitar and clinking dishes, I told my friend that, mostly, for me, it had been a decent education. Not least of all because it allowed me to second-guess some of the traditions in more mainstream institutions of learning.